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Timothy P. Shriver

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Putting Our Citizen Sector First

Posted: 02/ 7/2012 6:01 pm

This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign. To learn more, go to SaveTheChildren.org.

Here's a quiz: Which population is three times as likely to be poor, three times as likely to be out of the labor force and more than 1.5 times as likely to be obese than your average American? I'm guessing this is a quiz most Americans would fail, yet these statistics describe a minority group that lives in nearly every neighborhood in America: people with disabilities.

Thanks goodness Save the Children is putting the spotlight on poverty this week.

In so many ways, our nation's programs to support economically disadvantaged children and families have failed. Consider, for example, a young man named Dustin. He became an adult without skills for the workforce, without health care to address illness, and without the community connections to be capable of living a full life. As Dustin recently told me, "I basically raised myself."

If that were the end of his story, Dustin would be one more statistic: unemployed, chronically depressed, probably obese and alienated from mainstream society.

Fortunately, one dentist made the difference. Yes, a dentist. When Dustin came to a Special Olympics event in 1996, a volunteer dentist who was providing free screenings to athletes took one look inside of Dustin's mouth and sent him straight to the emergency room. Severe neglect of Dustin's oral hygiene had resulted in oral cancer. A volunteer doctor, deployed by a community-based organization, which depends on highly-leveraged private and government funding, saved Dustin's life.

Today, we face staggering unemployment, childhood poverty is at unprecedented highs (one in four children, to be exact), and our government is lacking the answers to address these challenges. There is no marshaling of citizens, there is no call to action for voters, there is nothing expected of every-day Americans.

But thank goodness there are creative people who are deploying new models in which government funding, community-based organizations and the private sector are coordinated to play mutually supporting rolls to reduce poverty. They depend not on inefficient government bureaucracy but on highly-leveraged funding; not on apathetic, self-centered individuals, but a volunteer-minded citizen sector; not on traditional command and control, top-down NGOs, but skillful and innovative community-based organizations.

It wasn't until Dustin landed in the middle of a vector of community, government and volunteer-based support that he was able to escape his own deadly cycle of poverty.

The good news is that this model is a scalable formula that can produce the paradigm shift we need to effectively fight poverty. But first we need to move beyond ignorant Presidential debates and political paralysis that will do nothing to address this growing problem.

In a season of national political debate, both parties would do well to address the needs of our national (and increasingly global) citizen sector, rather than focusing only on their own constituents. Citizens need small amounts to make a big difference, and to find new solutions to old problems. Our leaders must recognize the corrosive effects of poverty, but also realize there are tens of millions of Republican and Democratic citizens alike who stand ready to tackle this issue.

This week, Save the Children is spotlighting this critical issue. It's up to the rest of us -- every-day citizens -- to inspire and enact change.